Scene 1: In the classic German children's novel, "Jim Knopf und Lukas der Lokomotivführer" ("Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver"), the orphan Jim and his rough-and-tumble friend Lukas drive their locomotive to China (which for reasons of political correctness has been changed to "Mandala" in recent versions) to rescue the lovely Chinese princess Li Siwhom Jim eventually marries.
y childhood love for this novel was why I started to study Chineseat least, that was the story I typically told the folks who would unfailingly ask me: "Why in the world would a two-meter-tall blond German study Chinese?" But it wasn't true, or at best was an oversimplification. There are just too many scenes in our lives that weave into the tapestry of events and situations and lead to later events (we might interpret them as decisions), including, in my case, becoming an English-into-German translator.
The base statistics of my professional profile are relatively generic for our tangled translation world: born in Germany, studied Chinese, taught German in China, married an American I met in China, received a PhD in Chinese studies in Hamburg, Germany, moved to the U.S. to work in a translation company, started my own translation and writing company, and wrote some books and newsletters on technical translation topics.
Be passionate about language. This is the one part that cannot be learned.
But clearly it's the motivation behind those dry resume markings and odd international meanderings that are of interest. What attracts someone to translation? What keeps one passionate and driven to succeed and excel? Especially as a freelance translator, with no outside pressure (except that "minor detail" of having to make a living), there must be an inner motivation to make one go on.
For me, there are primarily two things that have been the driving forces in what I do: adoration for languages, and more specifically, writing and being creative in finding ways to simplify processes.
This may sound like a strange dichotomy. On the one hand are languages and writing systems in all their complex glory, and on the other hand there is the desire to simplify processes, including the process of translation. Yet to me, this is what makes our profession so rich: Doing one without the other would cause us to lose ourselves in marveling at the beautiful expressions, words, or characters. The alternative would be processing dead matter on both ends: dead source matter in and dead target matter out.
Perhaps these dual passions can be illustrated from some further scenes in my life and studies that have truly been meaningful to me.
Scene 2: In 1807 a Scotsman by the name of Robert Morrison arrived in China with the goal of translating the Bible into Chinese. A mere 15 years later he published the result, a translation that was all but unusable. Not only had he lacked the appropriate tools to learn Chinesemost of the time he had lived in hidingbut he also had much too little help from native-speaking Chinese translators. Still, his feat set off what may have been the most interesting episode in translation history: the translation of the Bible into Chinese. A century later, two dozen New Testaments and/or Bibles had been published, many in different styles of Chinese and with different levels of quality.
The most relevant differentiation among them was the translation of one term: God. The translation of this single term fueled feuds of a ferocity that no one would have expected the (presumably) gentle missionaries capable of. At the core of the controversy were these questions: Should a term be used that implied that God had been revealed in ancient Chinese culture? Or should a neologism be used that would define a break between Chinese culture and Christianity? A stunning number of letters, articles, and books were written about this. Today, 200 years later, the Chinese church still uses different versions of the Bible with different terms for God, but, surprisingly, with a sense of pride: What other culture has the privilege of having two names for God?
Sound like a long-winded explanation of something that may not seem relevant? Try spending a good part of a decade devoting yourself to the history of Chinese Bible translation as I did. I still find this evident power and complexity of the translation process fascinating. And those missionaries were passionateoh, so passionateabout something that the later Chinese church eventually put their minds to and solve with a very pragmatic solution.
Here is another way to explain it: If we let ourselves be driven by only the heart or only the mind, we are going to either burn up or dry up very quickly. It's the passion of the heart, the love for something beyond ourselves, that makes us want to keep on going. And it's the workings of our mind that satisfy us in what we do.
Scene 3: A few years ago I was part of a group of very experienced and well-seasoned translatorsmany of them more experienced than I wasworking on the translation of a large software product into seven or eight languages. Once the translation was done, we were all flown out to the company's headquarters to do the quality assurance for our languages. During the five days we spent there, I must have spent at least three days helping my colleagues solve computer problems. Now, I am not technical (remember, I spent much of my adult life in dusty archives reading missionaries' correspondence), but I had somehow or other found ways to handle the necessary tools of the trade so they would become a help rather than a burden.
That week spent with my colleagues prompted me to begin an ongoing discussion with other translatorswho are often as untechnical as I amabout viewing tools as welcome helpers that, if employed properly, can simplify things enormously. That's what I've been doing ever since (in the form of a book, a newsletter, and an e-learning site), and I cherish that part of my work life. It gives me a balance in the kinds of tasks I work on, and I get to talk to an appreciative audience. Translators tend to be lone wolves, but they sure know how to express their appreciation when someone reaches out to them.
I love my life as a translator, perhaps because I have consciously built this strange dichotomy I've talked about into my job profile. To achieve a similar diversity, here is the advice I give to translators:
- Be passionate about language. This is the one part that cannot be learned: Your tapestry of life has either given it to you or not.
- Use your mind to inform your passion. Be curious about new tools that can improve your translation.
- Do at least one thing besides translation in your professional life. There are many advantages to this, starting from creating your own projects if there are no outside projects to achieving a healthy diversity in your work life.
- Communicate with colleagues, whether at conferences and other get-togethers or through electronic means.
As a final Christmas present for my colleagues, let me share one of the results of my passion that I am very proud of: www.internationalwriters.com/characters. Enjoy.